The Scales of the Dragon: How I Knew My Father

By Selina Kaing

The Scales of the Dragon: How I Knew My Father

My father has always been an intimidating figure in the vague recollections of my childhood. Because he worked the overnight shift in the donut shop my family ran, some of my earliest memories consisted of being constantly shushed and quietly tiptoeing around the sofa bed where he slept during the day, exhausted from hours of baking and smelling of fried dough and grease. Sometimes my mom would call home in the morning when the shop would run out of donuts after a particularly busy period. She would tell me to wake my dad to come in and make more, urgency lacing her voice as she hated to disappoint her customers coming in for their morning fix.

Yet oddly enough, I always found myself hesitating before doing her bidding, nervously glancing at the sleeping figure of my father as he lightly snored away. This powerful being who literally shaped the future and fortunes of our family with his hands every night was a slumbering giant in my young mind, a fearsome and impatient dragon who could awaken at any moment and show benevolence or displeasure, his humor or temper tugging at the edges of my own disposition. Yet even as my burgeoning independent nature warred with the little girl who wanted to remain the apple of her father’s eye, I continued to bask in the glow of his approval when I was the dutiful daughter, despaired when he passed censure, and held my breath during those moments when I felt the weight of his judgment.

Over the years, that moment, that prickly pause, that slight hesitation, has formed and informed the bond between us, the uncertainty of his acceptance over the many life choices I’ve made always lingering in the back of my mind. Where I work, where I live, who I date; the aftermath of these decisions are often fraught with reservation and ambivalence even as I outwardly scorned the desire for his acceptance while quietly withering in the fires of his disapproval. After the ten long years I was away from home answering the call of my studies and ensuing career, I came back to California to find my father retired after selling the donut shop. It was a young man’s game, he said, his familiar face older now, a little more lined, a little more weary. He spent his days watching the stock market, his nimble mind still tallying numbers like they used to when he would quickly figure out how many donuts he needed to make to meet demand or how much he had to charge for a cup of coffee to at least break even at the end of the month. But what surprised me most was how he spent his afternoons. Once the closing bell signaled the end of the trading day, my father would jauntily emerge from his room and head outside to tend to the veritable mini-farm he had started growing in the front yard. Over the years, our lawn had gradually given way to his new pastime, sprouting everything from basil, chili peppers, sweet potatoes, and lettuce to more non-traditional fare like taro and kabocha squash.

But perhaps the most unexpected thing was the mass of thick cactus-like plants stretching out from large black tubs of soil in our backyard, their weight and length supported by a dizzying maze of PVC pipes and an unused clothesline we had abandoned once my father had been persuaded to invest in a washer and dryer combo. This, he pointed out to me proudly, is my dragon fruit, my khmersror kaa neak.

As I gazed at the flowering vines and the growing fruit beginning to take its odd egg-shaped form and distinctly vivid hue, I thought to myself that never had produce been more aptly named. Literally meaning “dragon scales” in English, these fiery red fruits with reptilian-like skin embodied the mythical creatures they were named after and were just as difficult to tame. And indeed, dragon fruit had proven a challenge for my father to grow. That year, a rare cold snap in Southern California prompted him to ask me how to Google greenhouse conditions for protecting his plants. Later on in the summer, when record heat caused the fruit to wither and die on the stem, I found him parking our Honda CRV in front of the vines and propping cardboard to provide a makeshift roof for relief from the sun. For several years, he patiently and contentedly weeded, watered and tended his plants, while I marveled at a side of him I had never seen. When another job called me away from home, I forgot all about my father’s garden until I came back to visit one day. As I walked in the door, my father excitedly handed me a small dragon fruit, one of the first from the year’s harvest that he had saved for my homecoming. It’s red on the inside, he told me, knowing that I preferred the sweeter, ruby colored flesh to the more familiar white pulp. He followed me as I walked to the kitchen and placed the dragon fruit on the cutting board, chatting amiably all the while about the stock market, current events, and if I wanted to bring back any herbs from his garden for my own use. As I looked down at the brightly colored fruit, smiling at his enthusiasm and happy to be home, I paused a moment before slicing through, my fingers gently stroking the scaly-looking skin that in reality was softer and more flexible than it first seemed.

About this writer

  • Selina Kaing Selina Kaing is a closet writer who squeezes in a fencing bout or two in between her day job in the tech sector. She currently lives in Northern California.

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2 Responses to “The Scales of the Dragon: How I Knew My Father”

  1. Erika Hoffman says:

    You paint a vivid picture of your father’s personality and loyalty to family and home. The symbolism of the dragon fruit is subtle and visual. The story resonates with all daughters who had hard working dads who sometimes didn’t have time to spend jawboning aimlessly with their offspring but nevertheless loved their children intensely as their actions showed. What a wonderfully written tribute to him.

  2. Your wonderful story about your father and the impact he had on your life. the dragon fruit hold so much symbolism. I enjoyed it.

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